• Keith Pray

What is Improvisation

I hope that as this page grows, I will have both musicians and non-musicians as part of this community. These types of posts will be more philosophical than details as part of my mission here is to connect people to the process and how it may relate to daily life.

I don't really like to define what improvisation is as that takes the fun out of exploring it and could stifle someone's creativity. One of the worst things an educator can do is say "this is THE way to do it". Its simply one possible way! By exploring possibilities the person doing the exploring is able to learn at a deeper level through trial and error. In a conversation, Trombone great Ray Anderson said to me, " Jazz is about failure". I knew instantly what he meant as I have failed many times! And sometimes those failures created the best stuff! Inventors often try to invent something for a particular purpose only to find out their invention actually is more useful for something completely different!


Back to improvisation. I feel like it is best described by some basic principles:


1. There is an element of problem solving.

2. It happens spontaneously.

3. Is rooted in things you already know.

4. Matter is neither created or destroyed.


We will get back to the principals in a second, but first a real life example. Just as everyone on this earth is different form everyone else so is their approach to preparing food. Some stick strictly to the recipe and some change it slightly. Others seemingly create brand new never before seen, smelled or tasted dishes that seem to come out of thin air. All of them are valid, except in my opinion "out of thin air" (we dig into that shortly).


Lets make chicken noodle soup. What 3 ingredients are required to make Chicken noodle soup? Chicken, Noodles, Liquid. Other than that depending on your creative journey the sky is the limit. I would also argue that it may be possible to have chicken noodle soup without one or more of those ingredients (that is were the problem solving comes in!).


The creative process in my opinion has three elements. Curiosity, Imagination and Play. In the case of our soup, I am curious how I can create my own chicken noodle soup. What do I already know about making soup is the first step. Does my family already have a traidion of making a certain kind? Do I embrace that tradition for my own variation or simply use it as knowledge of what could be done and possibly of looking to break certain"must haves" in that tradition. I become curious about what I would like the soup to smell like, taste like and look like. I imagine what ingredients could go into it based on my tastes and desire to push the boundaries of this soup. Do I put hot peppers in? Basil? Ice cream?!!! In my imagination anything goes! After I imagine it, I need to create it in real life. This is not for a brand or selling at a farmers market or restaurant, this is for me. That means I can try putting ice cream in if I so desire. If it works out great, if not onto the next thing with no attachment to it other than the joy of the process. That is play. Just like being a young child exploring my imagination in the real world, using the tools at my disposal (toys etc.) as a way to express my creativity. So far this all seems like any creative act, composing, visual art, dance, etc. and it is. Creativity is creativity. The difference is improvisation happens spontaneously.


Jazz piano great Bill Evans once said improvisation is "one moment's music, in one moment's time". A brilliant composer like Beethoven would struggle over long periods of time to get his music just the way he wanted it. And of course amazing music was created in that way! But how then can we hold great improvisors in the same regard as they are seemingly just playing random notes? Well, I am not going to answer that! That is a question for you. What is your belief? What I will do is go through the process of how improvisation in music takes place.


Lets use the principles to describe my process.


Principle 1- Problem solving.

Starting from the beginning, I asked my high school band teacher to let me do what I saw the others doing (I didn't know it was this thing called improvising). Immediately I wanted to know how. He told me "just play what ever you want". I asked what notes, he said "we can talk about that some other time, just play". Because I didn't know any better I literally just played what ever came out! over the decades since, I have refined, explored as many areas as I could of this form of creating, and it always comes down to solving a problem or problems. At the basic level, what should I play on this tune at this moment. At a more advanced level what is the music that is being created in this moment by the band telling me to play. At a much higher level, what has my life, the life of every being who has ever lived informed to play in this moment and you get the idea from there.


Principle 2- It happens Spontaneously


As you may already have noticed in my description of principle 1, I keep using the phrase in this moment. In improvisation we are dealing with one moments time in "one moments music". It is happening in real time. And then it is gone. That is the beauty and the curse of improvisation . Once it has been played it will never be played that way again. Recordings can help preserve roughly that moment but it is not the same as being there in that moment. We all have a style that identifies us in how we improvise, but what actually come out is truly influenced by everything in that moment. The crowd, how you hear the band Maybe I can't hear the bass, maybe I hear everything great), Is there a TV on in the background, Is the drummer overly busy not paying attention to what you are doing or are you able to have a group conversation with everyone present? All of those things and more are happening in real time and you are reacting in some way. I have done gigs in terribly boomy rooms and found the sound of the room so interesting that it completely changed how I approached music in that moment and in the future! All of this is to say that we prepare to make music at a high level, but what actually happens is shaped by the moment. Very much like words we are hearing a lot these days (mindfulness, presence). At the highest levels it is a deep connection to the present moment and some like Coltrane used improvisation as a form of meditation.


Principle 3- Is rooted in things you already know.


You can't speak Japanese if you have no exposure to the Japanese language. Music is a language and there for improvisation is very much like speaking. You have a vocabulary, learn the tradition of putting the language together (some go deeper than others) and then you become creative with it. Maybe you change your inflections, maybe your phrasing changes but overall, you have a way to speak that is you. Improvised music is no different. Just like the sound and cadence of your voice helps to define you, the same goes for the musician. When I am improvising in the moment as described above, I am still using a vocabulary that I have developed. The way I put that vocabulary together and present it is unique to me. Which leads me to the final principle (there may be more principles, who knows!)


Principle 4- Matter is neither created or destroyed.


Just like this scientific laws, even though we want to think something new has been created (spoiler alert) it hasn't been. In improvisation we follow our family tree, our genetic code. I am influenced by those who have come before me. Sometimes in obvious ways, sometimes in very subtle ways and sometimes in what not to do! Our musical family tree connects us through a tradition but its also what makes us different. Line up 100 alto saxophonists. Ask them who there 3 main influences are. Most will say people like Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderly etc. However there are so many other players we all expose ourselves to. It is this duality of commonality and differentiation that helps us to create our own approach.

This is what I think about improvisation today, who know what tomorrow will bring! How might you apply this to everyday life? I know I do regularly. Maybe you already do and haven't thought about it, maybe you need more in your life. Explore it and find out!




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